Architect of telecom law regrets FCC powers

A former lawmaker involved in the sweeping rewrite of communications laws in 1996 says he regrets giving too much discretion to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Former Rep. Jack Fields (R-Texas), who served as chairman of the Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Telecommunications and Finance back when the 1996 Telecommunications Act was passed, said on Monday that Congress should have been more prescriptive.

“We gave the Federal Communications Commission too much latitude and too much flexibility,” he said at a Capitol Hill event sponsored by the Internet Innovation Alliance, a group that advocates for universal broadband networks. “I think we should’ve been much more prescriptive in terms of legislative intent.”

ADVERTISEMENT
The 1996 law updated the 1934 Communications Act, which had created the FCC and outlined regulatory controls over phone, television and other communications services.

The bill was written when the Internet was still young, and lawmakers have called for a rewrite to accommodate for the changes in technology over the last 18 years. The House Commerce panel, now known as the subcommittee on Communications and Technology, began work on the multi-year effort earlier this year.

As they do, Fields warned lawmakers to be “very careful when any language is open-ended.”

“That would be my advice, that in any process going forward there should almost be a red light/green light, not a yellow light,” he added. “In other words, ‘If you do certain things this happens, if you don’t do them this happens.’ ”

Former Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), another former chairman of the subcommittee who is now the honorary chairman of the Internet Innovation Alliance, said that the law needed to be modernized to deal with contemporary communications networks.

For instance, Boucher said that old law requires that companies center their operations around traditional circuit-switched phone networks, even though two-thirds of the public has moved off of those to either wireless-only service or to phone service through a cable company.

The FCC has set a goal of eliminating that network by the end of the decade, and Boucher suggested that Congress help that transition in any way it can.

He also called for lawmakers to overhaul the regulatory structure of the FCC and write incentives for government agencies to give up their license on the nation’s airwaves “because the way it’s being done today is just not getting spectrum into the commercial market as rapidly as it is needed.”